n the TV screen, a psychic mutant covered with phlegm asks Arnold Schwarzenegger
what he wants.
"The same as you," Arnold says.
"To be myself
again," Arnold responds.
The movie is Total
Recall, an action/adventure flick based on the Philip K. Dick story "We
Can Remember It for You Wholesale." Arnold plays an ordinary guy
who is frustrated by dreams of Mars, where he has never been. So he goes
to a memory shop to buy a false memory, the memory that he was a secret
agent on Mars. While Arnold is unconscious, the folks at the shop discover
that they can't implant the false memory because they find that Arnold
really had been a secret agent on Mars! Then, of course, all hell breaks
loose and there's plenty of running and shooting and diving through windows
and flames and explosions and all that other good stuff.
part (unless you really like explosions) is Arnold's continuing uncertainty:
Was his ordinary life false, a dream imposed on him when he stopped being
a secret agent? Or is the current shoot-'em-up situation all a dream?
He can't trust his memories--and so he can't tell what is real and what
You, of course,
don't have any such difficulties. Your brain hasn't been tinkered with
by secret agents or memory technicians. You can trust your memories--can't
Don't count on
it. At the Exploratorium, we're working on an exhibition related to current
research into memory and how it works. Some of the things we've learned
are a little disturbing. So, in a spirit of generosity, we thought we'd
share them with you.
Before you read
any further, try an activity by clicking here.
Then come back and read more.
just keep reading. Try the experiment first. If you keep reading, we're
going to spoil it so that you can't do the experiment.
Have you done it?
Okay. (Yeah, we know that some of you haven't. Too bad. Your loss.)
Mildred Howard. From the collection of Daniel Schacter.
If you're like
most people, these lists caused you to create a false memory--most people
mistakenly remember words that aren't on the lists. Psychologists Henry
L. Roediger and Kathleen McDermott, experimenting with people's responses
to these lists, found that more than half of their experimental subjects
remembered a word that wasn't there on each list. Roediger and McDermott
noted that people don't just believe that they heard the word; they remember
it quite vividly. Memory researcher Daniel L. Schacter reports that he
has tried this experiment in lectures with audiences of nearly a thousand
people--and has had 80 to 90 percent of his listeners remember false words.
Remembering a word
that wasn't there might make you begin to doubt the orderly workings of
your own mind, but that's just the beginning.
Jean Piaget, a
Swiss psychologist noted for his studies of childhood development, believed
for many years that he remembered something that had happened when he
was just two years old. He wrote, "I can still see, most clearly,
the following scene, which I believed until I was about fifteen. I was
sitting in my pram, which my nurse was pushing in the Champs Elysees,
when a man tried to kidnap me. I was held in by the strap fastened around
me while my nurse bravely tried to stand between me and the thief. She
received various scratches, and I can still see vaguely those on her face.
Then a crowd gathered, a policeman with a short cloak and a white baton
came up, and the man took to his heels. I can still see the whole scene,
and can even place it near the tube station."